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  HOUSE OF THE DEVIL

The satanic panic of the 1980s is given a memorable airing in this, the latest exercise in old school minimalism by Ti West. I don’t feel THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is West’s best film, but it is impressive.

The Package
     Filmmaker Ti West previously distinguished himself with THE ROOST (2005) and TRIGGER MAN (2007). THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL from 2008 (released in fall 2009), is his third feature, and another skilled piece of work. Like the previous ones, it was executive produced and distributed by Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix, and features some cast members who will be recognizable to longtime horror fans: Tom Noonan, from MANHUNTER and West’s THE ROOST, Mary Woronov, from DEATH RACE 2000, EATING RAOUL and many other cult classics, and Dee Wallace, from the original HILLS HAVE EYES and THE HOWLING.

The Story
     The time is the early 1980s, on the night of a lunar eclipse. College sophomore Samantha is short of funds for a down payment on an apartment, so she accepts the first and easiest job available: babysitting for a creepy guy named Mr. Ulman. Samantha gets her friend Megan to drive her out to Ulman’s mansion, a forbidding Victorian abode where Ulman lives with his equally creepy wife.
     Samantha and Megan make a pact that if the situation with the Ulmans becomes too weird Samantha will bail out. Yet weirdness does indeed make itself apparent when Ulan informs Samantha that the “baby” she’ll be sitting is actually his mother. He sweetens the deal with extra money, which convinces Samantha to abandon her scruples and take the job.
     The disapproving Megan is sent away, but doesn’t get very far before she’s waylaid--and killed--by an apathetic fat guy named Victor. Before long Victor makes his way to the Ulmans’ house, where he spends much of the rest of the night lurking outside.
     Inside the house Samantha, who’s initially nonchalant about her “baby” sitting, grows increasingly freaked out. Footsteps are heard, among many other unseen activities of the old lady Samantha’s supposed to be looking after. There’s also the question of where the Ulmans went, and why Victor is hanging around outside--and the true significance of the lunar eclipse that’s about to occur…

The Direction
     As in his previous features, Ti West’s direction in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is at odds with virtually every facet of modern horror filmmaking: it’s uncluttered, concentrated and pacing wise extremely measured--or, if you prefer, slow. There’s a fair amount of gore, but what resonates is the carefully rendered atmosphere of mounting dread. In fact, I feel the lengthy build-up, with the heroine attempting to settle into the creepy house, is the best part. West’s visual sense is impeccable, and he loves quirky details (such as the minutiae of Samantha’s call to a pizza delivery boy, which initially seems gratuitous).
     West has also done a thorough job recreating the look and feel of late-seventies/early-eighties horror cinema. This is evident in the production design, the music and also the performances, from seasoned pros like Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov down to the twentyish lead Jocelin Donahue, which are all modulated accordingly. Among his other talents, West really knows how to work with actors.
     The film loses something, however, in all the screaming and running around of the final third. It’s here that the Deviltry promised by the title, inspired by the Satanic witch-hunts of the mid-1980s, makes itself apparent, which may be the whole problem. The Satan-worshipping angle feels tacked-on and gratuitous, as exemplified by a mid-film tracking shot through a (closed) door to show several dead bodies arranged around a large pentagram. The problem is the heroine, whose point of view in the house is also the film’s, never actually sees the bodies, so the shot feels out of place--as does the Satanic angle as a whole.
 

Vital Statistics

HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
Glass Eye Pix

Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Ti West
Producers: Josh Braun, Larry Fessenden, Roger Kass, Peter Phok
Cinematography: Eliot Rockett
Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, AJ Bowen, Dee Wallace, Heather Robb, Darryl Nau, Brenda Cooney, Danielle Noe, Ti West

     

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